Can the LDF government lay the entire blame for the crisis in Kerala's agriculture sector on the Centre? The government seems to think so but the Opposition thinks the government is using the misguided policies of the centre as an excise to wash its hands of its responsibility towards farmers.
It was Kerala Congress (Joseph) MLA Mons Joseph who raised the crisis in the farming sector as an adjournment motion in the Assembly on Tuesday. Agriculture minister P Prasad said it was the export-import policy adopted by the BJP government at the centre, which brought down import duties on a spate of agricultural products like rubber, coffee, cardamom, pepper and even palmolein, that had precipitated the farming crisis in Kerala.
Though he said the state government was doing all it could ameliorate the suffering of farmers, he virtually ruled out increasing the incentive for rubber farmers from Rs 170 to Rs 250 a kg. "We too are for raising the incentive but we cannot do it without the Centre's assistance," Prasad said.
He said it was was without any central assistance that the state had paid Rs 1788.99 crore as rubber stability fund for over 4.5 lakh rubber farmers till December this year. "It is not as if we are not doing anything," the minister said.
Increasing the rubber incentive to Rs 250 a kg, in fact, has been a long-standing demand. In 2015, when the scheme was introduced during the tenure of the previous UDF government, the support price was fixed at Rs 150 a kg. Then the price of rubber was around Rs 100 a kg. Though the LDF had promised in its manifesto that the support price would be hiked to Rs 250, the assurance has still not been met. Nonetheless, in April 2021, the government had marginally increased the incentive by Rs 20, to Rs 170 a kg.
Prasad said the LDF did not promise a sudden hike but a phased one. "But even in our manifesto, we had said that we would strive to secure help from the centre," Prasad said.
If the LDF government was sincere about its concern for farmers, Mons said it should have taken the initiative to increase the assistance when it was clear that the Centre had no intention of offering any help to Kerala farmers. Prasad repeatedly maintained that, given the state of Kerala's finances, more assistance could be provided only if the Centre agreed to help.
Opposition Leader V D Satheesan admitted that the Centre had to take the primary blame for the plight of Kerala's farmers. "But if the state, too, refuses to come to their help, the farmers will be plunged into a deeper crisis," Satheesan said.
He urged the government to increase the rubber incentive. "For a long time, your government did not have to pay rubber farmers anything as the price was above Rs 170 a kg. So even if you pay more now there will come a time when there will be no need for any assistance," Satheesan said, suggesting that the incentive would not be a huge drain on resources as the government made it out to be.
He said it was also wrong to claim that the state government was doing its part. He said there were serious issues related to the procurement of coconut and paddy. He said the failure of the government to strike timely deals with mill owners had resulted in harvested paddy getting exposed to rains. "By the time the deal was in place, the mill owners were not interested in damp paddy. This resulted in huge losses for farmers in Palakkad and Kuttanad," Satheesan said.
In the case of coconuts, Satheesan said there were not enough procurement centres. Farmers will have to travel 40-50 km to reach the nearest centre, he said.
The minister conceded that it was the case and said that mobile procurement units would soon be put in place to tackle the issue.
However, Satheesan's most damning accusation was the government's indifference towards the Farmers' Debt Relief Commission set up during V S Achuthanandan's time.
He said over one lakh applications were pending before the Commission. "No new applications have been received by the Commission from from Idukki and Wayanad since 2018. As for the 12 remaining districts, applications were not received since 2016," Satheesan said. "This effectively means that this government has shut down the Farmers' Debt Relief Commission," he added.
The minister did not respond.